A University of New Mexico scientist is trying to make ligaments with a 3D printer. If this method works, it could change the way surgeons deal with sports injuries. 

“It has never been done before,” said Christina Salas, Ph.D.

Christina Salas, a UNM scientist, is researching and developing an alternative technique for replacing torn ligaments, making them as good as new.

“Currently, the standard technique for ligament replacement is to do something called a ligament reconstruction,” Salas said.

That means surgeons replace the bad ligament with tendons, which can cause problems.

“What can happen over time is that the tendon itself begins to kind of stretch and become a little bit relaxed in the joint,” Salas explained. “Then (the tendon) becomes deficient again.”

With ligament tears becoming more and more common in sports, surgeons are always searching for advances.

“This is something that hopefully can reduce some of those failures we see,” said Dustin Richter, assistant professor of Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery. “And get people back to doing what they enjoy.”

“The near-field electrospinning technique that we have added to the bio-printer actually produces really highly aligned fibers that replicate the ligament tissue,” Salas explained.

By using this new method, scientists hope to create an exact replica of the damaged joint.

“The way that we would do this, is we can take a CT scan or an MRI of a patient’s joint,” Salas said.

This method could potentially allow for a less-invasive surgery.

“We want to make sure that those patients can truly maintain their full function even longer as they grow older in life,” she said. 

The biggest hurdle they are facing in their research is figuring out how to securely attach the synthetic ligaments to the bone. Salas recently received a two year, $150,000 grant for her research.